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Mama Afrika

By Billy | July 10, 2011

I’ve never been an “Africa person.” It seems that there is a decent chance for people to think some particular culture is really cool (often cooler than theirs) and that might be their thing. It’s not that I have ever disliked Africa, or been indifferent about it, but that I have never felt a tug to Africa that other people I know have. Rather, I would have to be an “India person,” if there’s such a thing as an “Africa person.” Indian culture, history, mythology, religion, art… I find that all impressive and intriguing in a way that I just haven’t felt about Africa. I met someone last night who is all about South America, and I know plenty of people all about Celtic, Greek, Oriental, or multitudes of other cultures.

This weekend was about Africa. So like it or not, everyone I met this weekend was an “Africa person.” This weekend, my friend Marcus hosted his 11th Annual Africa Festival. I assumed, for some crazy reason, that this festival would be more similar to my experience with Germanic? Barbarian? What the heck. How do I group the German speaking world together? Well, I assumed it would be like the tree themed festivals, or Oktoberfest, or something that is generally a come, crash, go home the next day type of event. In actuality, this weekend was much closer to my experience with festivals in North America. Particularly, Kasumama Afrika Festival was similar was Cornstalk Festival in Wysteria, Ohio.

My host mom, Alex, asked me on Friday night, “Oh, would you like to go to the festival now? We can drop you off. Here’s a tent.” I thought, since I’ve been there to help set up and since I know Marcus personally, that I would be the exception by bringing my tent and staying there. Duh. This is a big festival where people come from 2+ hours away and have high tech tents or tipis or cars that turn into tents and tipis at the same time (almost but not actually.) There was a tent city, and poi (without fire) spinning, and the herbal smell of hand rolled cigarettes in the air. There was, of course, rain (if you didn’t know, it almost always rains whenever I go camping. Especially if it’s an unusual time for rain — like the epic drought in New Mexico that I demolished by conjuring hailstorms). It conveniently rained every evening, with intense lightning shows and heavy gloppy drops of rain, which kindly stayed away from the inside of my tent.

Like any non-music themed gigantic festival, there was certainly music. There were workshops on African dancing and drumming and jewelry making, all of which I participated in to some capacity. I danced something called Kukuwa in college, which was a mix of African and Caribbean dancing, so dance workshop was actually just a review, it seems. The drum workshop was very basic, and the jewelry making intuitive. I don’t think I gained many important or helpful skills from this weekend — whereas I learned how to do blacksmithing in Wysteria. I think I got two major things out of this weekend, though.

Firstly, I gained a great appreciation of African culture. It was marvelous to see so many African or African Austrian or whatever they were/indentify as drumming and dancing and showing off their wares. There were thousands of cool articles of clothing, trinkets, toys, recycled dealies, things made of old tires, and, of course, African food! So good. There were plenty of not-exactly-African themed things going on, to be sure, like Aum symbols on sarongs sold in a couple tents — next to the Buddha statues and what not. That’s ok. It was beautiful to see these people so proud of their heritage in a place that seems to me so far from their cultural home. I couldn’t help but find it strange to hear people in traditional Ghanain dress speaking German. I found myself searching for the few Swahili phrases I know, or at least trying to conjure my French up to initiate dialog. Most of them spoke German, some English on top, and some Spanish on top of that. It was especially fun to see the little kids who had maybe been adopted by Austrian folks running around the place. Where there’s water in Austria, and when it’s summer, you’re pretty likely to find a couple naked children running around playing together. It made me think of Kirikou et la Sorciere, a marvelous film about an African boy who runs around naked and beats up witches.

The main thing I think I really gained from this festival was confidence. I noted while I was helping set up the festival that the menu in Markus restaurant has suddenly become sensical to me. (Why is nonsensical a word if sensical isn’t?) My first week here, I tried to read the spiesekarte, and I didn’t understand anything. Now I can read, order, and even tell the wait staff whether they are holding my plate or someone else’s plate (which also requires recognition of the food I ordered). That was a nice confidence boost. My first night there, I worked security with a lady named Corinne. We walked around the grounds checking to make sure everyone had the right wristbands on, or else we’d have to kick them out. The fact that we were supposedly doing it was more important than our actual presence, I’m sure. We didn’t do anything. Not even catch someone with an open fire in the campgrounds or a dog in the festival space. But, after walking around 100% of the festival and having not said anything, I realized I needed to say something. I had to find something new to say every lap we made, or else I’d feel totally lame, so I found more stuff to talk about. In fact, I did a better and better job with every lap.

Corinne explained to me the difference between Western and English riding styles, how long she studied and in which city, what she does in her job, and lots and lots of other things. I explained that I spend my time making a banjo, or other projects with wood, and reading, playing instruments, and writing. I hadn’t realized how impactful that first night was until about 5 minutes ago when I was relaying the order of things. The next night I couldn’t justify taking an official position working because my humanpower wouldn’t have been worth the food and drink card that you get for volunteering. Instead, I hung out with the family, who showed up half way through the day. While playing with the kids, I sat by the one firecircle on the grounds, and talked to some people. I had several 10+ minute conversations with people about a wide array of things with virtually no English involved. It was really great. One of the ladies I talked to questioned me so thoroughly as to why I don’t have more friends in Weitra that I can’t think of a good reason that I don’t. She was encouraging in her words and in the fact that we could speak to one another thoroughly. That’s something I’m especially happy about.

Now I’m going to go shower the lake water and all that grows in it out of my hair. Today two people mistook me for a workshop leader because of my hair.

P.S. People is just people: In Austria, too, there’s always that one gal/guy in the corner dancing like a crazy person and you can’t figure out if he’s on mind altering drugs or if he’s always like that but it really doesn’t matter because he’s so great. One thing I’m beginning to fully realize being so far from home is that in the end, we’re all the same.


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